It is hard to believe, but breeding season is less than five weeks away, beginning for us this year on Saturday, September 16th. Everyone goes about setting up their breeding groups in a different way. Some shepherds will keep only one ram, and every ewe they own will go in with that one guy. They might continue this for two or three years, eventually breeding him to his own daughters and granddaughters before selling him and buying a hopefully-unrelated replacement. Others will run two unrelated rams and alternate, breeding one ram’s daughters to the other ram and vice-versa. This extends the breeding life of either one of the rams at that particular farm, but usually does little to really improve the flock since all decisions are based on relationship instead of traits. Ideally, the shepherd will have several rams who each run a breeding group, and the ewes are placed with the ram who has the best combination of genetics to improve her weaknesses and bolster her strengths. There are probably nearly as many ways to put together groups as there are shepherds, but over the years, we have fallen into a routine that seems to work well for us regardless of breed – and that says a lot, since one of our breeds is a very common one, and the other is critically endangered. We needed a technique that worked equally well for both breeds and situations.
The first selection criteria for our breeding groups has already taken place by this time of year. For the past six months, I have been looking over all of the sheep on our acreage, choosing those that will overwinter here and remain in or become part of our breeding flock. After lambing this past spring, we had a total of thirty-seven rams and seventy-three ewes on our acreage. From among that group, we have at this time selected fourteen rams and forty-five ewes who will find a slot in our flock this year.
Each of these has been chosen because of the traits that sheep brings to the flock, and how they fit into the goals we have for flock improvement. There are certain “deal breakers” that, if present, immediately remove a sheep or lamb from our breeding list, and then there are other traits that we consider to be negative, but that will still allow such a sheep on our breeding list. Improperly formed legs, for example, will immediately remove a sheep from our flock, while a coarser fiber diameter is an acceptable compromise if everything else is in place. I might summarize these decisions in this way: the first list of criteria determines whether this is a good functioning sheep, while the second measures that sheep against the ideal representation of the breed. If it is a good and sound sheep, they may still find a place in our flock while we work to bring that family line closer to our ideal breed representative. On the other hand, if the sheep is not correctly structured, there is no point in looking any further – they will go to auction or the meat locker. None of our ‘keepers’ is a perfect sheep, but each has the possibility of bringing the next generation closer to that image of breed perfection.
The rams are selected more carefully than the ewes because their genetics in this one year – after this one annual selection – could very well be spread among a dozen or more lambs. Our ewes take many years to produce that number of lambs and so will be held up in comparison to their flockmates many times over those many years. I am more willing to compromise on a ewe than on a ram – our rams are always much closer to our ideal than any one of the ewes.
Besides these many physical traits, we also consider temperament of our breeding animals – and this is again a more difficult hurdle for the rams to overcome than the ewes. I will happily keep both shy ewes and friendly ewes, removing only the ewes or ewe lambs that I find to be wild and hard to handle. In the ram flock, however, I will remove the wild and hard-to-handle rams, too – and also any that show a somewhat aggressive nature or those that are particularly friendly as lambs. Both of these latter groups will more than likely become too difficult to manage as adults, and I know that temperament is hereditary. Any rams kept in our flock as breeders have already passed this selection criteria and convinced me that their temperament is one that I want multiplied in future generations within our flock.
Once we had our list of possible breeders for this fall, I assembled my list of flock goals for the coming season. Our goals change very little from year to year, but as old goals are met with each breeding season, they drop off of the list and others move up in priority, with new goals typically added at the bottom and eventually coming up in priority as years pass. Each fall, I make a chart for each of our breeds, listing the ewes of that breed down the left side and all of the same breed’s rams across the top. I add information pertaining to our breeding goals for each sheep in the appropriate line or column. For example, this year we are still working on average fiber diameter (AFD) in the Romeldales, so I have every ewe’s AFD listed on her line and each ram’s just above his name in his column. For the first time this year, we are also working on the coefficient of variation (CV) of their fleeces, so the CVs are listed right with the AFD. Adult size is another trait that we are working on moving up a bit in the Romeldales, so that, too, is indicated for each animal. Once the entire chart has been put together for each breed, I can begin to fill in the center of the chart – but details about that will need to wait until Wednesday when we’ll further discuss exactly how I figure out our breeding groups!